Sehnsucht (Live in Rotterdam)

Sehnsucht (Live in Rotterdam)

The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan is a veteran of the concept album. With Vienna, La Passione, Crazy Girl Crazy, and Dance With Me, the music is always placed within the broader cultural trends of a specific era. It’s the same with Sehnsucht, but this time the album’s German title is a little more difficult to define. “The word is nearly untranslatable,” Hannigan tells Apple Music. “Desire, nostalgia, melancholy come close, but there is something else—a longing for something which cannot be. A loss which leaves only an endless yearning.” Late 19th- and early 20th-century Vienna was a fertile incubator of this “Sehnsucht,” and its influence suffuses Hannigan’s new album connecting songs by Alban Berg with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Hannigan has clear ideas about why a Sehnsucht epidemic thrived in this particular period. “I think it has to do with the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “When trains were invented, they moved at a pace which enabled musicians to start touring, and everything started to change. What we knew as settling and being in one place, with notions of safety and home, wasn’t our world anymore. The train was like what the internet is for us now.” That sense of sudden uprooting and impermanence is examined in the Berg songs on Sehnsucht, which are marked by what Hannigan calls the “decaying harmony” of their musical language. There is longing in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, too, especially its finale, where a child describes an idyllically heavenly place in song. Sehnsucht was recorded in April 2021 as a concert for online streaming during the COVID pandemic. There was no live audience, which, for Hannigan and her musicians, created a different kind of longing for concerts to be truly “live” again, with people physically present and listening. “I didn’t want us to face an empty concert hall, so we did it in the round, facing one another, with beautiful lighting and a beautiful setup,” Hannigan recalls. “And there was a special kind of intimacy about that. A strange new hybrid.” Read on as Barbara Hannigan shares her thoughts on each of the works on Sehnsucht. 7 Frühe Lieder (Berg) “I’d already recorded Berg’s Seven Early Songs with Reinbert De Leeuw on piano. On this album, we’re doing Reinbert’s chamber arrangement of the songs, which exist also in a version for full orchestra. Reinbert was my mentor, and now I’m able to transmit my love for this music to the younger artists on the album, including conductor Rolf Verbeek and players from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. All three versions of these songs are extremely interesting, and the first time I sang Reinbert’s version was with the conductor and composer Pierre Boulez. The Seven Early Songs often have an indirect, mysterious quality about them, and the way Reinbert reflects that in the various instruments is fascinating. The world that emerges has a quality of something forbidden, something untouchable, a love or desire that’s almost painful to experience. I could sing these songs forever.” 4 Gesänge, Op. 2 (Berg) “I’ve never sung Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2 because they’re not written for my voice type. But I love them and have taught them a lot in master classes. They’re sung on this album by the Dutch baritone Raoul Steffani, a member of my young-artist program Equilibrium. For composers of this era like Mahler, Berg, and Schoenberg, writing songs was the most fertile, experimental garden for composers to develop their harmonic language. And this is what you hear in the Op. 2 of Berg—the development of what would come later, for instance, in his operas Wozzeck and Lulu. There are a lot of references to sleep in these songs, and in the age of Freud, people were starting to think about the subconscious. So, in Berg’s Four Songs, going to sleep means entering the world of dreams, like an invitation to a different psychological reality.” Symphony No. 4 (Mahler) “There are dreams in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, too. I sing in the finale, where I am looking through the eyes of a child at a place where there is enough food to live on, where good and bad exist together, and yet one can still appreciate the beauty of music, of color, of dancing, and of being alive. Is it a child who is already in Heaven or a child who’s looking at Heaven from the outside? My gut says the child has already gone to Heaven, having perished at the hands of death in the second movement. We use a chamber reduction of the symphony in this performance, and singing with just 12 musicians is really a luxury, not least because the balance of voice and instruments is much better. And to sing with Marc Daniel van Biemen, the principal violinist, was just joyful—he’s such a great player.”

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